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Work-related knowledge and work process knowledge and the

education of VET Professionals

Graham Attwell (Institut Technik und Bildung, University of Bremen,

Germany), Annemie Jennes (HIVA, Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium),
and Massimo Tomassini (ISFOL, Italy)


Those involved in VET as planners, teachers or learners need to recognise the

significance of different kinds of knowledge related to the practical experience of
work in different occupational fields. Particular value is placed upon the
development of work-related knowledge and of work process knowledge, with the
former linking knowledge, from wherever it is developed, with the experience of
work, while the latter encompasses knowledge of the whole work process. This paper
will examine both types of knowledge in some depth and suggest some of the
implications for the education of vocational teachers, trainers and planners.

The importance of work-related knowledge

The cognitive side of occupational competence is key to the development of context-
related expertise: with work-related knowledge providing the link between
knowledge, which is not context related, and experience at work, which may not
necessarily be used in a generalisable way. This implies both the need for active
reflection upon experience and a shift from information to knowledge: expertise
cannot be developed through simple although extended information acquisitions, but
only through continuous and subtle cognitive experiences related to putting
knowledge into action, co-developing personal and professional knowledge,
integrating individual knowledge into the larger dimensions of knowledge held by
groups and whole organisations.

In terms of VET innovation the enjeux are very relevant: a shift of emphasis is
required from training to learning and from the mere transmission of knowledge
through training interventions to the facilitation of learning (i.e. the creation, use and
circulation of knowledge), through more complex interventions in which training is
mixed with other HRD practices.

The focus upon particular kinds of knowledge development has been identified as a
key factor in innovations designed to increase the supply of creative knowledge
value: what is important for the production of knowledge value is not so much
facilities or equipment in the material sense, but the knowledge, experience, and
sensitivity to be found among those engaged in its creation (Sakaiya, 1991, p270).
This way, knowledge is assumed as the real driving force of our era, but also strictly
linked with day-to-day problem-solving and problem-setting in working situations,
and more generally with the professional competencies and expertise.

Different types of knowledge

When thinking about knowledge development in a richer way, it may be useful to

distinguish between different types of knowledge. Ludvall and Johnson (1994)

identify four different kinds of knowledge, each requiring different types of mastery:
know-what, know-why, know-how, know-who.

Know-what refers to knowledge about facts: it can be considered as equivalent to

what is normally called information and related to the knowledge corpus that each
category of experts must possess.

Know-why refers to scientific knowledge, influencing technological development

and the pace and characteristics of its application in industries of every kind. Also in
this case, knowledge production and reproduction take place within organised
processes, such as university teaching, scientific research, specialised personnel
recruiting, and so on.

Know-how refers to skills - that is, the capabilities to do something in different

contexts (e.g. judging the market prospects for a new product, operating a machine-
tool, etc.). Of course know-how is typically a kind of knowledge developed at the
individual level, but its importance is evident if one considers the division of labour
and degree of co-operation taking place within organisations and even at the inter-
organisational level (for instance, the formation of industrial networks is largely due
to the need for firms to be able to share and combine elements of know-how).

Know-who is another kind of knowledge which is becoming increasingly important,

referring to a mix of different kinds of skills, in particular the social skills, allowing
the access and use of knowledge possessed by someone else.

A typology of different kinds of knowledge, akin in many ways to the one mentioned
above, has been developed by Vickstroem and Normann in their attempt to develop a
new perspective of corporate transformation (1994). They distinguish: information,
skill (or know-how), explanation, and understanding.

Information is a piece of knowledge of an objective kind whose importance is

mainly related to its factual nature but is not limited to that. For instance, the
addition of new information about a certain topic can modify the pattern in which this
topic was conceived allowing a new intellectual structure emerge.

Skill or know-how, unlike information, is embedded in individuals, as they are able

to behave coherently in a particular situation in order to achieve a certain result.
Much knowledge of this kind is often referred to as tacit knowledge, acquired
through watching what other people do and by trial and error.

Explanation refers to scientific knowledge, it is not person-based and can be found

in articles, textbooks, and so on. Explanatory knowledge very often provides the
basis for problem-solving activities.

Understanding is the most profound form of knowledge, arising when principles and
connections are recognised. Understanding is thus embedded in individuals and is in
many ways equivalent to learning, insofar as it involves the creation of new

Each kind of knowledge is characterised by different channels through which learning

takes place. The easiest cases are those of know-what and know-why, that can be

obtained through the typical channels of knowledge acquisition (reading books,
attending lectures, accessing data bases), while the other two categories are rooted
primarily in practical experience and are more problematic insofar as they require the
availability of social informal channels. Apprenticeship is a fundamental channel for
acquiring know-how knowledge: it represents the most important way for skilling
new-comers in an organisation, but these protracted processes of learning by doing
are also frequently the responsibility of those who are considered the experts in an
organisation, capable of above-average performance. Simulations are sometimes
used as shortcuts for reproducing the many aspects of the know-how acquisition
available in real situations. Know-who - as Lundvall and Johnson (1994) point out -
is also socially embedded knowledge which cannot easily be transferred through
formal channels of information. It is learnt in social practices (like those taking place
in the professional communities giving the participants access to information
bartering with professional colleagues), although some of it can be learned in
specialised educational environments.

Tacit knowledge and its application

Work-related knowledge is to some extent quite difficult to pin down for two reasons.
First, it contains a tacit dimension and, second, it is bound up with particular social
contexts: that is, work-related knowledge is applied within particular communities of
practice, who develop ideas about how knowledge should be acquired, applied and

The tacit dimension of knowledge was originally proposed by Michael Polanyi

(1962). The basic idea is that we can know more than we can tell. That is, there is
a level of knowledge that cannot always be put into words and linearly explained. In
this dimension, in which the concepts of know-how, skill, competence, and expertise
are rooted, knowledge is a practical and theoretical ensemble, whose development
and mastery take place through procedures which cannot be identified in linear terms.
In fact, the results of cognitive processes are often obtained only by successive
approximations. The acquisition of specific elements of knowledge that we possess,
but are unable to express, comes about, in many cases, by focusing our attention on
further elements and by successive feed-back on what we have previously learned.
The discovery (or decision) is facilitated by anticipating the implications that are yet
to be determined. In this way, knowledge accumulated in a cognitive system,
although not expressed, makes up an implicit framework orientating the ways in
which successively other elements enter in the system. This is the reason why
individual skills are usually tacit: the aim of a skilful performance is achieved by the
observation of a set of rules which are not known as such by the person following
them (Polanyi 1962, p.49).

The social nature of work-related knowledge has been underlined by drawing

attention to the social context in which knowledge is acquired, developed and applied.
The most relevant part of knowledge is seen in terms of interpretation of experience,
based on idiosyncratic frameworks that at the same time favour and limit the
individual process of sense-making (Resnick, 1991). Situated cognition, the situation
in which cognitive acts take place, is the driving idea of this kind of approach,
recognising that individuals are very sensitive to their cultural context. The latter
provides a complex fabric of references (exchange of information, attention of events,

co-operation, etc.) that in the long run give shape to individual knowledge and
determine a social construction of knowledge. Understood this way, the context
creates a dynamic equilibrium between the know-what of theory, and the know-how
of practice. In fact, it is through the tight inter-dependence, or better the co-
production of theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge (Brown et al 1989), that
competencies can be developed and maintained.

The social nature of work-related knowledge is also stressed in the cultural-

anthropological perspective. For instance, Orr (1993), analysing the working
behaviour of work groups for repairing photocopiers, shows that these technicians
develop their knowledge over time through problem-solving and continuous
interaction. The defects of the machines they have to cope with are often very
different to the ones reported in the standard operational manuals, therefore problem-
solving and problem-setting happen collectively on the basis of previous experiences
of each member of the group and on the basis of various types of communication,
even the informal chatting around the coffee-machine. This way, knowledge is
continuously created and maintained within a specific community of practice, having
its own language and myths (partly through the handing down of war stories,
reporting the main events of machine repairing and client dealing).

Recently ideas about the application of tacit knowledge in particular social contexts
have been developed further in considering moves to create knowledge-creating
companies (Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995). The model is based on the assumption that
knowledge in organisations, especially in the most innovative enterprises, is created
through the interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge, continuously
converting one into the other one. The model postulated four different modes of
knowledge conversion called socialisation (from tacit knowledge to tacit knowledge),
externalisation (from tacit knowledge to explicit knowledge), combination (from
explicit knowledge to explicit knowledge), and internalisation (from explicit
knowledge to tacit knowledge).

Socialisation is a process of sharing experiences and thereby creating tacit

knowledge, such as shared mental models about the application of technical skills.
This occurs in the particular case of on the job learning during apprenticeship in
which tacit knowledge directly derives from the master - not through language but
through observation, imitation, and practice - and is converted into the tacit
knowledge of the apprentice. It is a process which cannot be abstracted from
associated emotions and from the specific contexts in which shared experiences are

Externalisation is a process of articulating tacit knowledge into explicit concepts. It

is generally based on metaphors, analogies, hypotheses, images or models from which
new ideas and products can be generated through interaction between individuals who
want to reach the same outcome. It is in fact a process which takes place in concept
creation combining different reasoning methods (deduction and induction).

Combination is a process of systematising concepts into a knowledge system,

through combining different bodies of explicit knowledge. The media for this
purpose can be very different (documents, meetings, telephone conversations,
computerised databases, and so on). Reconfiguration of existing information through

sorting, adding, combining, and categorising explicit knowledge can lead to new

Internalisation is the process of embodying explicit knowledge into tacit knowledge.

It is closely related to learning by doing: that is, the sum of experiences gained by
individuals through socialisation, externalisation, and combination can become
individuals tacit knowledge bases in the form of shared mental models or technical
know-how. But internalisation can be also reached through other forms: for instance
reading or listening to success stories can induce new levels of tacit knowledge in the
members of the same organisation and the establishment of new shared mental
models within the organisational culture.

The four modes of knowledge conversion are structurally interconnected. Different

events of organisational life can be viewed from a perspective of incorporating each
of these modes in the processes of knowledge creation. Of course an organisation
cannot create knowledge by itself but can only mobilise tacit knowledge created and
accumulated at the individual level. Tacit knowledge of individuals is the basis of
organisational knowledge creation organisationally amplified through the four
modes of knowledge conversion. Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) define this process as
the knowledge spiral in which the interaction between tacit and explicit knowledge
will become larger in scale as the relationships among the four modes are
continuously increased and managed.

In this perspective, organisational knowledge creation, which could be considered a

subtler way of viewing organisational learning, is a spiral process, starting at the
individual level and moving up through expanding communities of interaction, that
crosses sectional, departmental, divisional, and organisational boundaries in the
organisation. Overall then, work-related knowledge appears as a very complex and
multifaceted issue, involving several different and often contradictory dimensions
which can be synthesised in the relationships between explicit and tacit knowledge.
These ideas also offer a fertile background for new research activities aimed at
supporting the development of the VET, particularly as far as continuous training and
lifelong learning are concerned.

The centrality of work process knowledge in the development of VET


The previous section pointed to the importance of knowledge generated or amplified

at work in the development of expertise. Such ideas then have considerable
significance both for vocational education and training in general and in the
development of VET professionals in particular. It may be that for the application of
the foregoing ideas in these contexts it would be useful to represent the ideas in a
simplified form: the use of work knowledge may be one means to achieve this end.
Work process knowledge can be regarded as knowledge encompassing the whole
work process, often acquired through the experience of work, and knowledge which
is required for successful performance in the workplace. Whilst theories of the
learning organisation and of situated learning have illustrated the centrality of the
design of the work place as a medium and opportunity for learning, less attention has
been paid to the role of the teacher and trainer in mediating and facilitating this

Many of the studies in the field have tended to concentrate on human resource
development and of the implications of new forms of work organisation for
management development, rather than examine the role of the teacher and trainer in
the acquisition and development of work based knowledge and skills. One of the
cornerstones of the EC funded EUROPROF project is to examine the role that VET
professionals play in the development of work process knowledge and to design new
curricula which reflect this role (Heidegger, 1995; Attwell, 1996). An acknowledged
difficulty in this process is the various levels of disaggregation, firstly between the
role of teachers and trainers in developing work process knowledge in others, and
secondly in the design of learning processes to develop teachers and trainers own
work process knowledge. Furthermore the relation of the teacher and trainer to the
work process itself raises questions of the nature of professional competence for this
occupation. A further challenge is the need to bring together professionals and
academics working in a number of different disciplines and from different countries
and cultures in order to achieve the project goals.

Ideas about learning development

Learning is related to the acquisition and application of knowledge, linked to

information processes and possible changes in patterns of thinking and modes of
behaviour. As Eelen (1990) argues learning can take place without a change in
behaviour, due to a latent learning process. Latent learning means that the processing
of information does not result in immediate changes in performance or external
behaviour. This process has to be taken into account when we talk of the transfer of
learning to the work place. Latent learning is also important in the process of making
implicit knowledge explicit. This links to the process of learning on the job. Where a
worker learns on the job, at least partly through the observation of the performance of
others in the workplace, then a variety of things may be learned: for example, not
only problem-solving strategies may be learned, but also other sets of attitudes,
feelings and behaviours exhibited by the model (Bandura, 1986). Other aspects of
learning development also need to be considered. For example, Lowyck (1992)
identifies four characteristics of adult learning (social position; experience;
motivation to learn and capacity to learn) and these all need to be borne in mind when
considering the development of work process knowledge.

The learning organisation

Work process knowledge has particular significance for companies attempting to give
a clear focus upon learning, knowledge and development. Such companies have
increasingly been labelled as learning organisations, although the concept is used for
different purposes in different contexts. Bouwen (1992) describes three main
meanings of the concept of the learning organisation. In the broadest meaning the
concept of the learning organisation is used to indicate an organisation that provides
training and education for its workers. Training may be part of the companys
strategic plan and may be organised according to a set of rational principles, but it is
not integrated: training remains something separate in the organisation. The second
way in which the concept of the learning organisation is used is to point to the need
for permanent change and improvement. The third meaning of the learning

organisation is the one that Bouwen prefers. In this case the learning organisation is
an organisation which is capable, as a social system, of collecting and validating data
to improve performance and to plan and carry out actions in which all company
members are involved. In this way learning in depth is stimulated as well as long
term effectiveness. The quality of communication and interaction are especially
important. Many improvement programmes for organisations are based on attempts to
improve organisational learning, through improving the capacity of the learning
organisation (Bouwen, 1992), including those emphasising processes of continuous

The learning organisation raises demands for individual learning and for
organisational learning. Cole (1995) stresses the difference between the two. Many
commentators make the implicit assumption that individual learning aggregates in a
linear fashion to provide the basis of organisational learning, but Cole doubts this is
always the case. Cole names three necessary conditions for converting individual
learning into organisational learning. They are motivation, capability and
opportunity. Too often managers forget one or two of these critical conditions.
They may, for example, provide training programmes whilst failing to provide
conditions for practice and application.

In the literature on the learning organisation much attention is paid to the skills
required of managers: including operating new styles of leadership, new styles of
communication and interaction and so on. Senge (1990) speaks of the new key
competencies for the leader in the learning organisation as being those of the
designer, teacher and steward. Brown (1994) states that one should distinguish
between competences (work content skills) and meta-competences (which rely on
learning from experience) when talking about managerial performance. On the other
hand little attention is paid to the changes needed in the training programmes
themselves. Many speak of on the job training, just in time training and the necessary
conditional motivation as if it was some sort of magic formula. However, it is much
rarer for writers to talk of the key qualities for the new trainer, who is needed to help
realise the learning organisation.

As was argued previously, Nonaku and Takeuchi (1995) see innovation as springing
from the continuous and dynamic interaction between implicit and explicit
knowledge. This can be represented as a learning cycle: see Figure 1.

Figure 1: Learning Cycle (based on Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995)

Implicit Knowledge

Internalisation Socialisation

Explicit Knowledge Implicit Knowledge

Combination Externalisation

Explicit Knowledge

One starts the learning cycle with socialisation, the process of sharing experiences
and thus creating implicit knowledge. The shared mental models and the shared
technical skills created in this way are what Nonaku and Takeuchi call implicit
knowledge. On the job training utilises the socialisation process, where implicit
knowledge is handed on from one person to another without language necessarily
being used in the process. The second step is the externalisation process: making
implicit knowledge explicit. This mode of knowledge conversion is typically seen as
the process of concept creation. The best way to do this is through a sequential use of
metaphor, analogy and model. Externalisation is the crucial process in knowledge
creation because it creates new explicit concepts from implicit knowledge. A step
further is the process of systematising concepts (seen as explicit knowledge) into a
knowledge system - the combination process. The best example of combination is the
process of knowledge creation in formal education and training in schools. The final
step is the internalisation - from explicit knowledge to implicit knowledge,
internalised in the way individuals behave and think at work.

Nonaku and Takeuchi provide many illustrative examples of their theories based on
the practice of individual companies. However, they fail to assess the relative
contributions or responsibilities of the different actors within these companies. It is
necessary to go further and examine the action and processes which take place within
the different functions in organisations and especially by the persons behind them,
including the trainers and managers, when we talk about the individual and
organisational learning. Furthermore it is important to realise that while knowledge
may be seen in terms of competitive advantage for and within companies, knowledge
is essentially a social process.

The implications of work process knowledge for VET professionals

The next step is to look at the implications of the research and debate on work process
knowledge for the education of professionals working in vocational education and
training. The term professional is used for two reasons, firstly to emphasise the
importance of professionalising the occupation of VET teachers and trainers and
secondly to attempt to overcome the traditional divide between the different
functional and organisational contexts for practitioners in teaching and learning.
Whilst learning is recognised as central to the development of work process
knowledge and there have been many studies of the learning process and of new
forms of learning this debate has not, generally, been extended to the education of

VET professionals nor has it been adequately reflected in the development of new
occupational profiles for VET professionals.
The development of work process knowledge has particular implications for the roles
of teachers and trainers and thus for their own education and training. Firstly there is
the emphasis on the work process and critical points in the work process as both a
context for the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills and secondly as
the content for vocational education and training. The first may be seen in the moves
towards alternance in vocational education and training systems in different countries
in Europe, the combining of formal education with work experience and practice.
This had been accompanied by a move away from traditional didactic teaching
towards an emphasis on experience based learning, including project work and
problem solving and the use of the work place as a learning environment, whether in
a real or simulated situation. Teachers and trainers play the role of mentor and coach,
leading and guiding students and facilitating the process of reflection in action. They
also need to undertake the task of constructing and sequencing learning opportunities
and learning experiences and designing learning environments. Work experience or
on-the job learning in itself does not necessarily lead to work process knowledge, the
provision of work experience outside the context of planned learning programmes
and without the mediation of teachers and trainers may result in a high degree of
`empirical narrow mindedness and the `reproduction of the traditional. Kruse
(1986) has emphasised the importance of contact with the focal points of industrial
change in work and technology and of participation in the process of organisational
change in the development of work process knowledge. Although much of the
research to date has been in the sphere of industry and of information technologies the
same idea can be extended to non industrial sectors, including care and social
provision (Patiniotis, 1996).
In constructing work process knowledge vocational education and training has to
develop a prospective character, in teaching young people to shape and change future
technology and work. Shaping competence requires not only individual knowledge,
but also collective work process knowledge of the social regulations governing them
which enable the organisation of collective representations of interest (Rauner, 1995).
Skills are not effectively learnt, or taught, as series of competencies abstracted from
their application and use, neither can vocational and technical expertise be acquired
other than in a social and organisational context. Vocational teachers and trainers
need to have a theoretical and practical understanding of the shaping of skilled work
in the vocational field in which they are working and a holistic knowledge of the
work organisation. They must be able to combine the teaching of complex practical
skills and techniques together with an understanding and application of organisational
Many researchers in work process knowledge have been concerned at the design of
person / machine interfaces and at the application of open systems technology as an
aid to interactive learning environments and to the shaping of technology. At the
same time there has been intensive research from educationalists into the use of
information technologies for learning processes, especially in the provision of
computer assisted open and distance learning. This field constitutes a further area of

work for vocational education and training professionals. It must be said that much
of the development to date has been marred by the failure of technologists to
understand the learning process and by the lack of interaction in the design of
educational technology. Open and distance learning, or intelligent person / machine
interfaces do not replace the role of the teacher and trainer. They do, however, lead
to a new role in the design of learning materials and to a changed role in the planning
and nature of intervention and mediation in individual and group learning processes.
The recognition of the importance of work process knowledge, together with rapid
changes in technology and new forms of work organisation, have focused attention on
the need for a broader and deeper knowledge base in order to apply knowledge in
uncertain and new situations and to be able to meet future change. VET professionals
must have an understanding of the relation of their own subject based knowledge and
competence to occupations and to related occupational fields. Their ability to plan
curricula and design learning programmes demand a knowledge not only of the
present and future context in which skills and competencies are to be applied, but also
an understanding of the direction developments of the industry and occupation as a
whole are taking. Furthermore they must be able to relate vocational and technical
competence in their particular occupation or field to broader areas of economic life
and to local and national labour market developments.
Such an approach though does carry dangers. For example, there is the danger that an
emphasis on higher levels of vocational education and training will result in
insufficient attention being given to the development of more practical knowledge
and skills. Additionally there is a danger of a widening gap between `general
vocational pedagogics (the planned, abstract tasks, knowledge and ability required in
the process of work) and the requirement for a full understanding of the work
process. Demands for increased flexibility have led to the concept of core skills or
key qualifications, however work process knowledge will not be acquired by the
teaching of learning to learn and problem solving skills outside a occupational or
subject context. Thus vocational education and training teachers and trainers need the
understanding of the subject which they teach and the ability to design and deliver
curricula which can relate subject based knowledge to occupationally organised
skilled work and to economic development at an enterprise, regional, national and
international levels.
The concept of work process knowledge is integrally linked to the idea of lifelong
learning. Initial vocational education and training only forms the basis for the
development of work process knowledge which in itself reflects and shapes the
changes in work organisation and applications of technology. VET professionals have
to be able to understand the different contexts and organisation of learning for initial
and continuing teaching and training, for young people and for adults. The traditional
divide between these spheres of teaching and learning are a barrier to the
development of work process knowledge.
In summary the theory and practice of work process knowledge is contributing to a
new and changed occupational profile for vocational education and training
professionals combining a need for subject based knowledge, an understanding of

work processes and organisation, occupational expertise and familiarity with new
pedagogic approaches.

Concluding remarks
The debate around work process knowledge has usefully focused attention on the
application and practice of vocational knowledge in critical work situations and on
how such knowledge is acquired. The fruits of such research can be seen in the design
of new learning environments, especially in computer aided work stations and in such
concepts as the learning factory. Some of the research on new work organisations and
learning organisation theory have begun to look at the role of the teacher or trainers
in organisational or situated learning. Curriculum reform in initial vocational
education and training has tended to stress the importance of applied work process
knowledge through the introduction of alternance and simulated work practice. Ideas
of life long learning have stressed a new importance for continuing education and
training. Despite this, surveys and studies (see, for example, CEDEFOP, 1996) have
shown that the training of VET professionals, teachers and trainers, is still
fragmentary and replicates traditional cultural and institutional models. The
knowledge gained from researchers in areas such as work process knowledge has yet
to be reflected in the professional education of vocational education and training
practitioners. Yet this step is critical if the new insights and knowledge gained in the
world of work and applied knowledge is to enter the practice of skilled work through
its transmission and integration in the learning cycle and practice of skilled workers.


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